Between a Rock and a Hard Place: A History of American Sweatshops, 1820-Present (1999)

Co-published with Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance in cooperation with the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

Author: Peter Liebhold and Harry R. Rubenstein

Paperback: $12.00

ISBN-10: 0-934052-31-X

Product Details: 88 pp., 10 x 8 in, with photographs

Categories: Activism; Art & Culture; Class and Social Status; History; Human Rights; Labor, Business & Economy; Immigration and Migration; Urban Studies; Women’s Studies


This important museum catalogue was produced with the Museum of Tolerance as part of the Los Angeles viewing of the Smithsonian Institution's exhibit, "Between a Rock and a Hard Place: A History of American Sweatshops, 1820-Present." The exhibition was on view from November 1999 to March 2000 and was considered controversial at the time of its showing.


The Center participated in the publication of the work, with then-Director Don T. Nakanishi stating in the "Introduction," "We are hopeful that a publication and exhibit will enhance the public's understanding of the historical development, structural causes, and deplorable economic and social aspects of sweatshops in America’s past and present.

Generations of Asian Pacific immigrants and their descendants have been integral to the American sweatshop experience, particularly as seamstresses and other workers. During the nineteenth century, they made jeans, work clothes and shoes in big cities and small towns from San Francisco to New England. After World War II, many Japanese American women, in returning to Los Angles and other West Coast locales after being imprisoned in concentration camps, worked in sweatshops to help their families regain their financial footing. Today, Asian Pacific Americans represent a significant proportion of the workers- as well as contractors and entrepreneurs- of the garment industries in Los Angeles."


"In the early morning hours of August 2, 1995, a multi-agency task force descended upon a fenced compound of seven apartments in El Monte, California. Although many officers on the raid had seen other garment sweatshops, the level of exploitation that they found in El Monte shocked even these battle-hardened investigators. Police arrested eight operators of the clandestine operation and freed seventy-two undocumented Thai immigrants. The workers had been jammed into close living quarters and forced to sew sixteen hours-a-day in virtual slavery. Officers found finished garments and orders from several nationally prominent manufactures and retailers that had contracted with the shop.


Although the El Monte incident was an extreme case, sweatshops are not new to America. The forces that promote sweatshop production have always been varied. Some shops are the result of greed and opportunism; others stem from competitive pressures. Since the dawning of the Industrial Revolution, many generations of Americans have toiled in sweatshops. Then, as now, their labor has been accompanied by widespread debate over what constitutes a fair wage, reasonable working conditions, and society's responsibility for meeting those standards.

A sweatshop is more than just a metaphor for a lousy job. Although not exclusive to the garment industry, the term sweatshop came into general usage in the 1890s to describe abusive labor practices in the manufacturing of ready-to-wear clothing. Although there is no clear, single definition of the term today, it generally refers to a workplace where relatively unskilled employees work long hours for substandard pay in unhealthy and unsafe conditions.


Understanding why sweatshops persist means exploring issues of competition, government regulation, immigration, business practices, and racial, ethnic, and gender discrimination. No one publicly endorses the existence of sweatshops, only that they are unfortunate by-products of the economy. When confronted b the occurrence of sweatshops, those involved proclaim, 'I'm caught between a rock and a hard place.' Whether it is workers, contractors, manufacturers, retailers or consumers, all voice the opinion that competition, limited alternatives, and the demands of others have severely limited their options."

(From "History of Sweatshops" by Peter Liebhold & Harry R. Rubenstein)

Table of Contents

Why Museums Mount this Kind of Exhibit, Spencer Crew and Lonnie Bunch
Building a More Tolerant Future, Liebe Geft
A Bright Light of Revelation, Don T. Nakanishi
History of Sweatshops, Peter Liebhold and Harry R. Rubenstein
History of Sweatshops in Photographs
History of Sweatshops through Graphics
The Los Angeles Garment Industry, Richard P. Appelbaum
The El Monte Sweatshop, Peter Liebhold and Harry R. Rubenstein
Interviews with Two Thai Workers, Praphapan Pongpid and Manlinan Radomphon
Resources and Websites
Views on Sweatshops in the 90's


Kwoh, Stewart & Leong, Russell (Eds.) (2009). Untold Civil Rights Stories: Asian Americans Speak Out for Justice.